The Song Before It Is Sung


In one of the last conversations I had with Isaiah Berlin before he died, I asked him which writer or thinker most closely shared his view of things. Without hesitation, he replied: “Herzen.” Berlin revered Alexander Herzen, the 19th-century Russian radical émigré, for many reasons, but it was his insistence that humans make their own lives that resonated most deeply. Just as there is no song before it is sung – a saying of Herzen’s that Berlin loved to cite – so there is no human life until it is lived. It is an idea inherited from the Romantics, and while it captures something profoundly important, it also has a certain unreality. Humans may fashion their lives, but in some of their most vital decisions they have no choice. When facing circumstances they cannot alter, they can only act in character, sometimes with tragic results, and in this sense their lives are fated to unfold as they do.

Justin Cartwright’s The Song Before It Is Sung is, among other things, a meditation on the equivocal nature of human action as played out in the relationship of Elya Mendel and Axel von Gottberg – fictional versions of Berlin and one of the conspirators in Claus von Stauffenberg’s July Plot to assassinate Hitler, Adam von Trott, who was tortured and hideously executed in August 1944.

more from The New Statesman here.